i.m. Mary Harris, née Kennedy

My grandmother died this morning, just after 1 am. Peacefully, with my eldest cousin and aunt there. She was 104 years old, and so frail you could almost see the sunrise through her.

I’ve written about her quite a bit – she’s the one who taught me to read, who made me a poet. Cowarral was her place. Leaving there broke her heart. Well, almost. It turns out her heart was able to break again and again without ever quite giving out – when my grandfather died; when my uncle died. When she sold the house my grandfather had died in, and the sale turned into an acrimonious dispute with someone who had been a dear friend. When she moved across the width of Australia, expecting to die shortly after. And didn’t. When she went blind, and could no longer read. When she broke her hip, and had to be moved into a nursing home full time. So many heartbreaks. So much to break.

I’ve tried to type something appropriate to finish off this post about a dozen times, with no success. So I’lll just leave with two poems written about her. Not, as it happens, from the collection. Apparently they read some of The Summer King to her this morning. I don’t know whether to smile, or cry. Both.

Bread
for Mary Harris

My Grandmother taught me this,
to bake the brown loaf
that crackles like starched linen
as it cools, and fills the house
with the scent of fresh bread.

On tip-toe beside her
I learned the alchemy of yeast,
the rhythmical sway of kneading,
the patience of rising,
of proving.

With her love I make this bread,
hands dancing with flour and magic;
this household sacrament
that keeps a family – come, eat:

the staff of life,
the stuff of love.

Sonnet

Setting sun, this shadow-gathered dusk
in her eyes – she who taught me to read
is lost. Long night after night, the words
seep into pages, become river-mist,
dissolve away by dawn. A broken cloud,
her mind become a tangled skein of thought
and blindness. She calls me by my mother’s name,
asks the farm dog if her darling is here yet.

Beloved, you are leaf and husk, more knot
than net, a tattered web. I’d carry you
on my back across these mountains if I could.
Song on the edge of hearing, you are rumour,
you are ash, you are a loved, abandoned room,
the word I cannot answer. May your death be soon.

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5 thoughts on “i.m. Mary Harris, née Kennedy

  1. They are both beautiful poems, but I’ve loved the second since I first heard it. I’m not sure in view of the last line if “I’m sorry” is quite the right thing to say. Condolences, but also a recognition of the blessing of rest after a long life. Coincidentally, my grandmother also lived to a month of 104.

  2. The thing about death I find, especially the death of a loved one, is that you need time to respond to it. When it first happens all that seems to be available are clichés – well meant expressions like “Well she had a good run” – and they never feel right; grief can almost seem second-hand. The words will come. Best not to try to force them.

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